Looking back to look forward. What skills can history teach our children in a post truth age?
Patricia Murphy, documentary film maker and best selling author gives her insights into staying creative, fake news and critical thinking.
In an era of fake news do you see history as playing a role, in teaching our children about critical thinking?
I think its vital! Teaching history is one of the surest ways of teaching children how to evaluate and assess a mass of information. For a start, it’s about working out what’s important. How do you wade through all the masses of data and boil it down to its essentials? What sources can you trust? How do you evaluate the different sources? The government might be saying one thing, but the revolutionaries another — who do you believe? Was the press at the time trustworthy? It’s about understanding the value of corroborating information. If all several sources are saying the same thing, then it’s more likely to be true. Is there any physical evidence? History introduces children to the idea that there are multiple points of view and different ways of looking at an issue.
It’s about learning to see things as a whole. Differentiating hard facts from propaganda.
Also learning history teaches children how to order their ideas, by sorting and sifting out the main reasons why things happened as they did. What were the causes of World War 1? The shooting of the Arch-Duke Ferdinand triggered it but the underlying causes were imperialist competition among the great nations and the series of alliances between rival blocs of power, the rise of militarism and the instability in the balance of power. Getting your head around that at a young age, making connections between disparate ideas really gets the neurons firing!
It also shows that things change, allowing children to understand that change is possible, that context is important. We are not still sending small children up chimneys in Europe. But equally awful things might be happening in other parts of the world. And we are now thrashing our environment. But people used to throw raw sewage in the streets until the 19th century when sewage systems were improved. Maybe there is still hope for improvement.
Ireland has had a turbulent and bloody history some of which you’ve written about in your best selling trilogy of books: Molly’s Diary — The Easter Rising 1916 and Dan’s Diary — The War of Independence 1922 and Ava’s Diary- The Irish Civil War 1922. Do you believe we have to look back to look forward or can we become bound by the past?
As Hilary Mantell has said, you have to know your history because your opponent will. I believe that we need to look back and honestly confront the past in order to be free of it, so we can create a better future. The past is full of unfinished business and the trauma that what Joseph Lee called, “the wounds of history” still have to be be healed. But of course the worst thing to do is dwell on grievances or hark back to some idealized, heritage version of the past. We need a healthy balance — which is why critical thinking is important.
Historical fiction has a part to play because it promotes empathy. We understand that our forebears were once alive, once drew breath. Writing about them, gives them back life, acknowledges they existed. Very often we write about those who are hidden from history. By recognizing their existence they are no longer ghosts to haunt us. The only way to free ourselves from the burden of history is to understand it.
As a best selling author, how do you keep the creative juices flowing? Is creativity nature or nuture? Is it something you incorporate into family life?
Creativity is an instinct. I believe most people are born creative, humans are ingenious as a species. You only have to look at a child who will play with anything that comes to hand, from lego to sticks to their own fingers, to conjure up imaginative landscapes. Our impulses are for making things and storytelling. But as Picasso said, all children are born artists, the challenge is to keep them like that. So as an adult you have to learn to nurture it and give yourself permission to be like a child.
Creativity is a muscle, you have to exercise it. But equally you have to be patient and let ideas brew. I see creating a piece of fiction as a process. You break it down into little tasks. It’s like a bird building a nest twig by twig. I don’t expect to do it in one big splurge. But giving yourself time and space helps.
This is where habit comes in. Keeping a notebook for ideas and writing things down, helps me. Also being open to all kinds of stimulus, going to the theatre, art exhibitions, anything at all! It’s very important to show up at the page, keep writing appointments with yourself. The muse is more likely to come if you are already waiting for her!
I think creativity is something that can be very naturally brought into family life. Storytelling for example. Very often on long car journeys we make up stories to pass the time, each person having to contribute a sentence and then the next person takes it forward. Also discussing films and books that you’ve all read. Children are always asking questions. It’s nice to turn the tables!
Out of the many skills collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, communication bandied around what do you believe is the most important one for kids growing up in the digital age?
All of the four C’s are important and interlinked. I would add a fifth one — confidence. And then a sixth — discipline, for without the learned habit of concentration nothing ever gets done.
They need to be more than slogans though. There has to be precise and evidence based practical teaching to embed the learning for children. They are all nurtured in different ways. How we teach these skills also has to be more child centred and personalized. The Latin root of the word “educate” is educere, which means to lead out, or bring forth. So we should be working with children’s natural bent. Some children for example are fizzing with ideas, but need to learn to evaluate them and work out how to put them into practice. Others work well alone but find it more difficult to be productive in groups.
Critical thinking and creativity are the bedrock skills. Without them there is nothing to communicate and collaborate about. But they are all subtly interlinked.
It’s interesting that Finland, which leads the world in literacy and numeracy and is considered to have one of the best education systems, have moved away from traditional subjects towards phenomenon based learning. This means topics in the real world are the starting point — such as, climate change, water, the European Union. Then it is studied holistically integrating different subjects. For example looking at the population and economic performance across the EU involves maths skills, its origins — history etc. The Finns must be doing something right as they’ve been top of the European rankings for the last 16 years.
There is still a strong argument for teaching subjects individually. But a mix of approaches could be considered.
There’s yet another quality I would like to see emphasized — joy. Children love to learn — they are learning machines when very young. Too often school squashes that out of them. We need to keep fostering their curiosity and their sense of wonder. If we keep that going, they can learn anything!
We need to stop seeing children as little adults who must get stuffed full of knowledge to equip them for the big scary future. What they really need is to to think and create, then communicate and collaborate to bring ideas to fruition. They need to “learn to learn” — have the skills to take forward into any situation, all through their lives.
Has the digital age altered the role of the author for better or worse? How do you see it changing in the future?
That’s a tough one! On one level its great. It means you can communicate directly with readers very quickly, which I love. I have done Skype Q and A sessions with book groups and schools for example. I tweet regularly and people can find you and contact you directly with questions or requests.
Molly’s Diary benefitted from being published in the digital age. It became a genuine, word of mouth bestseller through children and their parents taking to social media to recommend it.
It also makes research much easier. There are so many fabulous databases online accessible at the touch of a keyboard. For example when I was writing Molly’s Diary and Dan’s Diary, I drew heavily on the Irish Bureau of Military History’s massive online database containing over 35,000 pages of eyewitness accounts from 1913–1922. I have been able to communicate directly with scholars and historians. When I was writing Ava’s Diary, I was able to pinpoint the exact site of the Ballyseedy Massacre in Kerry by communicating directly with local historian Dr. Tim Horgan.
Authors today are expected to run websites, communicate frequently, maintain a digital presence. This frankly is almost another job. The digital age has definitely changed the publishing industry. So that has a knock on effect on authors. One senses that publishers want authors to be creative entrepreneurs as much as storytellers.
But ultimately it all comes down to the book whether it’s on paper or on a screen. I’m hoping in its essence, the role of the author doesn’t become too dissipated. Despite all the other distractions, readers, particularly young readers, still want to curl up with a book that takes them into another world, another reality created by someone else’s imagination.